Act I (Loman Home, Past):
This segment of the act takes place in the kitchen years before. Willy reminds Biff not to make promises to a girl, because girls will always believe what you tell them and Biff is too young to be talking seriously to girls. Willy surprises the boys with a new punching bag, and as Happy exercises he brags about how he is losing weight. Biff shows Willy a football he took from the locker room, but Willy tells him to return it. Biff tells Willy that he missed him when he was away on business. Willy says that someday he'll have his own business like Uncle Charley. Willy says that he'll be bigger than Charley, because Charley is liked, but not well-liked. Willy promises to take his boys on business and show them all of the towns in New England and introduce them to the finest people.
As Happy and Biff toss the football around, Bernard enters. Bernard is worried because Biff has a state exam (Regents) the following week and has yet to study for them. Bernard heard that Mr. Birnbaum will fail Biff in his math class if he does not study, and reminds Biff that just because he has been accepted to UVA the high school does not have to graduate him. Willy tells Bernard not to be a pest, and Bernard leaves. Biff says that Bernard is "liked, but not well liked." Willy says that Bernard may get the best grades in school, but when he gets out in the business world people like Biff and Happy will be five times ahead of him.
Linda enters, and after the boys leave she and Willy discuss the troubles that Willy has been having in his business. Willy worries that others laugh at him, but Linda reassures him, saying that he is successful because he is making seventy to a hundred dollars per week. Willy also worries that people respect Uncle Charley, who is a man of few words. Linda tells him that few men are as idolized by their children as Willy is.
Arthur Miller employs a disjointed time structure in Death of a Salesman, in which the play shifts settings and time within the act. The "present" time of the aged Willy Loman and his grown sons gives way to the time when Biff and Happy were teenagers. These scenes are explanatory: the actions and conversations of teenage Biff and Happy clarify the behavior of the characters in their early thirties. The tone of these scenes is idyllic; the tension that is later apparent between Biff and Willy is nonexistent, while both characters demonstrate a confidence and contentment that has disappeared decades later.
The segment demonstrates the inherent causes of the Loman sons' immaturity. Willy has instilled in his sons a belief that appearances are more important than actual achievement or talent, contrasting his athletic and handsome sons with the hardworking yet uncharismatic Bernard. Willy values intangible characteristics such as personality over any actual barometer of achievement, which he dismisses as unimportant in the business world. The contrast that Willy makes is between men who are "liked" and men who are "well-liked," believing that to be "well-liked," as defined by charisma and physical appearance, is the major criterion for success.
This causes his sons, particularly Biff, to eschew their studies in favor of athletic achievement. Happy continually brags that he is losing weight, while Biff, ready to go to college on an athletic scholarship, shows enough disregard for his studies to fail math. This segment also foreshadows Biff's later troubles; he steals from the locker room as a teenager just as he later steals from Bill Oliver. Although Willy does not speak directly to Happy about how he should treat girls, Miller indicates that it is from his father that Happy gained his unhealthy attitude toward women.
Miller defines several major themes of Death of a Salesman in this flashback. Most importantly, he develops the theme of success and the various characters' definitions of it. Miller presents Charley and his son Bernard as unqualified exemplars of success; Bernard is an exemplary student, while Charley owns his own business. However, Willy cannot accept the success of these two characters, believing that it is his personality that will make Willy a greater success than Charley and his sons more successful than Bernard. Yet there is an unmistakable degree of delusion in Willy's boasting; he fails to realize the limits of charm and charisma when it masks superficiality. Even Willy's claims of his own success at this point seem invalid; he brags about meeting important and powerful men, yet can only specifically describe briefly meeting the mayor of Providence. Furthermore, he worries that others do not respect him as they do Charley and that he is not making enough money. Even in the prime of his life, Willy Loman is an inauthentic man whose dreams exceed his limited grasp.